The first time Han-Yeong heard Kang Meong-U’s name was in a curious rumor circulating at the Korean Compatriots’ Journal. Supposedly, a Korean had managed to swing permanent residence in the refugee category. Han-Yeong had understood that it was almost impossible for a South Korean to get a refugee visa. It was hard enough for real refugees from Vietnam or Cambodia. For a South Korean to declare himself a refugee was just not possible unless there was some extraordinary circumstance.
Of course, it wasn’t especially difficult to explain that South Korea had suffered under a dictatorship. The turmoil of Gwangju in 1980 was particularly useful for those who wanted to claim refugee status. Back then, those who were actively protesting against the government could give evidence of their credentials and make a strong argument for being recognized as political refugees. But after the so-called civilian government came to power, the opportunity virtually disappeared. No matter how often specials appeared on television about South Korean labor injustices and the labor movement or about the standoff with North Korea, civilian government meant that South Korea was no longer a source of refugees. And with each passing year, South Korea became a more important trading partner for Australia. There was no reason for Australia to risk diplomatic friction for the sake of one man’s refugee application.
But there it was: permanent residence as a refugee. Han-Yeong wondered what sort of remarkable history Myeong-U had. By a stroke of good fortune, Park, the immigration lawyer who’d handled the case, was a friend of Han- Rim’s. Han-Yeong went to visit, and Park jotted down Myeong-U’s address, begging Han-Yeong not to let on under any circumstances that he’d received it from him. Park clearly hoped that a magazine would reveal the story that he could not personally divulge. Getting to blow his nose without using his hands, so to speak. It didn’t take a genius to realize that Park wanted to enhance his reputation in having word get out that he’d won a case for a refugee visa.
But Park’s subterfuge went awry from the start. Han-Yeong’s interest in Myeong-U had nothing to do with the magazine. The Korean Compatriots’ Journal may have been Han-Yeong’s only job, but because he wasn’t formally employed, he didn’t draw a formal salary. Officially, he still had the right to an unemployment check. Money wasn’t what made him say yes to his friend’s extremely ambiguous request to help him out at the magazine. Rather, Han-Yeong felt that after a year of loafing around he needed a routine. He’d quit a good job he’d worked at for five years because of its suffocating regularity. When he thought about it now, he was amazed at his own transformation.
Maybe he had made the decision expecting that the journal would have a Korean staff, and that through working there he would get to meet Koreans from all walks of life. At some point he’d become distressed by the sensation that he was flotsam cast adrift in a void. For him to feel such anguish was mildly ridiculous. He had come as a skilled migrant and found a decent job immediately upon arrival, and even though he’d moved around a bit, he’d always landed positions at good architectural firms. That he’d found work easily right after immigration could even be considered a piece of great fortune. When he quit, everyone around him had the identical reaction. What the hell are you doing? A good job like that! He couldn’t explain to them his anguish, his l...